Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A need for Jewish Spirituality

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

I participated in YU's Championsgate Conference this past Shabbos, and one of the major themes was the need for Spirituality, meaning (at least as I take it) a feeling of connectedness to Gd, that Judaism resonates with something inside the soul, that this is a religion and not only a set of regulations.

Of course, a need for Jewish Spirituality is far from a new issue; fifty years ago young American Jews were joining the Peace Corps and running off to ashrams in search for spirituality, and Jewish adults were dropping out in great numbers. And Rav Moshe Weinberger was pitch-perfect in his 2000 Jewish Action article, writing, "In our "enlightened" times, Jewish souls are deceived by the delusion of "double concealment." Too frequently, we offer lifeless prayers in the midst of animated personal conversation and drag ourselves through the details of Orthodox Judaism. We have forgotten the purpose of life, while observing its regulations. We have lost our sense of divine yearning and subsequently have stopped yearning ourselves. We proceed cheerfully with the business of establishing institutions and supporting more Jewish causes, not realizing that the essence of Judaism eludes us."

But the matter has been exacerbated by today's constant connectedness, the draw of emailing and texting and status-updating so that there is no such thing as "living in the moment" or stopping to feel and contemplate. Many of us are like tourists who spend their entire trip taking photographs, rather than truly seeing and appreciating the live view.

I liked what one speaker at the program, an educator, said. Someone in her session commented that we are too intellectual and rational, and this kills spirituality. In essence, she replied that this is a case of correlation rather than causation; we are intellectual, and many of us have an underdeveloped spirituality, but it is fallacious to suggest that one leads to the other.

For that matter, someone else suggested to her that attention to halachah is found in inverse proportion to spirituality, so that the most מדקדק (precise) observers of halachah are often the least spiritual. This, of course, has long been the contention of anti-ritualists – but I believe that it, too, is incorrect. Attention to ritual need not reduce feelings of depth, and sensitivity to the Divine.

On a related front, the speaker noted that Spirituality is not the same thing as Tefillah. Some people don't daven spiritually, but they experience it elsewhere. This is certainly true in my experience; spiritual resonance can come in the actions of blessing one's children, learning Torah, helping others and so on. Indeed, spontaneous private moments can bring greater connectedness than orchestrated kumzitzes and organized tefillot.

All of this reminds me of a project I set up back in 1998 or so in my first shul, in Rhode Island: An email list devoted to Jewish Spirituality, to asking and discussing questions of spirituality. The archives are still on-line, here.

I'm contemplating a new project to promote this theme now, something more elaborate and sophisticated… stay tuned…


  1. I think that the search for spirituality must venture beyond the revealed Torah and halacha pesuka. This was the path of Chassidut ( especially Chabad and Breslov. One of the places to look is for this spirituality is Torat Rav Aryeh Kaplan which includes uses techniques of meditation to connect to the inner self before approaching The Ein Sof in prayer and practice.

  2. We sorely need to get close to role models for the Jewish spiritual life. It takes more than a title and a resume and communication skills to be a Jewish spiritual role model. I've met some outstanding Jews here and there, some rabbis, some not, and without that I would have a very limited appreciation of our potential greatness.

  3. David-
    Baruch sheKivanti; wait until you see tomorrow morning's Daily Torah Thought!

    Very much agreed.

  4. The need is certainly pressing but there is no silver bullet. I remember reading "Souls on Fire" in college and thinking - gee how do we set a soul on fire? 40 years later I still don't know, but I do know that one size won't fit all.
    Joel Rich

  5. "For that matter, someone else suggested to her that attention to halachah is found in inverse proportion to spirituality, so that the most מדקדק (precise) observers of halachah are often the least spiritual."

    And sometimes addarabba, the more spiritual, the less stringency in halacha (eg. davening times for some Chasidim).

    But agreed, we need both.